With the NFL preseason well underway, focus will soon shift to the 2021 regular season and chase for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Between free agency, the NFL Draft and constant salary cap manoeuvring, the NFL landscape is a tapestry of shifting rosters and narratives.
Here are our 10 favourite storylines to look out for ahead of the fast-approaching 2021 NFL regular season.
1. Tom Brady’s quest for eight
Tom Brady returns for his 22nd NFL season. The greatest quarterback of all time is no doubt looking to extend his own all-time records for Super Bowl appearances and wins, having lifted the Vince Lombardi Trophy for a seventh time in ten Super Bowl outings this past February.
That the Buccaneers return all 22 starters on offense and defense places them in the top tier of contenders. In offense, the depth and quality of the arsenal at Brady’s disposal (which features tight end Rob Gronkowski, wide receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown, and running backs Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones) is exceptional.
The defense is also littered with playmaking talent. Devon White and Lavonte David, two of the best linebackers in the business, head up a similarly deep and talented unit. Combined with a veteran defensive line led by Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh, and a talented young secondary, it’s tough to see this top-ten defense slipping much.
At the end of the day, though, it all comes down Brady. If Tampa Bay is going to repeat as champions in 2021, he will be the catalyst.
2. The ‘Rookie 5’ quarterbacks
In 2021, for the first time in more than twenty years, five quarterbacks were selected in the first 15 picks of the NFL Draft. The top three picks were all QBs, with Trevor Lawrence going first overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Zach Wilson going second to the New York Jets, and Trey Lance third, to the San Francisco 49ers. Later in the rounds, the Chicago Bears traded up to #11 to select Justin Fields, and then the New England Patriots selected Mac Jones with the fifteenth pick.
Lawrence will be the sure-fire starter in Jacksonville, as will Wilson in New York. Both are tasked with turning around ailing franchises. As things stand now, Lance, Fields and Jones will have to wait for their chance to shine as NFL starters, as Jimmy Garoppolo, Andy Dalton and Cam Newton are slated to begin the season as the starters in San Francisco, Chicago and New England. All three veterans are capable starting QBs in the NFL. It is worth noting, however, that, based on Dalton’s less-than-thrilling skill set and Fields’ excellent start to the preseason, the QB situation in Chicago is probably the least settled of the three.
In the long run, however, it’s likely that all five will have a huge impact on their franchises.
3. Can the NFC’s Least become a Beast?
In 2020, the NFC East was, by some margin, the worst division in football (and one of the worst ever), with a combined record of 23-40-1. The division’s postseason representative was the Washington Football Team, who made the playoffs with a 7-9 record.
Dallas will be the favourite in 2021, given the return of Dak Prescott from injury and their plethora of offensive talent. However, Washington will like their chances once again, as they pair an outstanding defense with a sporadically brilliant journeyman QB in Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Meanwhile, the New York Giants have added some offensive weapons for third-year QB Daniel Jones, and the Philadelphia Eagles are in rebuild mode, with the inexperienced Jalen Hurts starting at QB, and Nick Sirianni about to make his head coaching debut.
It’s unlikely that this division will turn into one of the NFL’s best in 2021, but considerable improvement should be expected over last year’s dire performance.
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4. 2016 Draft duo find new homes
When a team takes a QB #1 or #2 overall in the NFL Draft, the expectation is for that player to lead the franchise for a decade or more. Sure, in some cases, QBs simply bust. But interestingly the top two picks from the 2016 draft, QBs Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, fall into neither category.
Wentz played a huge part in Philadelphia’s path to Super Bowl LII, while Goff led the Los Angeles Rams to a Super Bowl. However, the Eagles ultimately won the Super Bowl with Wentz’s backup, Nick Foles, behind center, while Goff was badly exposed in the Rams’ loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.
Both have left the franchises that drafted them for pastures new after just five seasons. Goff is now the new starter for the Detroit Lions, after he was traded, along with two first-round picks, and a third-round pick, in exchange for veteran QB Matt Stafford. Wentz, meanwhile, was traded to the Indianapolis Colts in March 2021, in exchange for a second- and third-round draft choice.
The big question heading into the season is whether the pair can reignite their careers. Goff will get an immediate opportunity to prove wrong his previous employer. Wentz, however, will have to wait, as an foot injury sustained in training camp that required surgery is likely to delay the start of his season.
5. Can Aaron Rodgers succeed again?
Reigning NFL Most Valuable Player (MVP) Aaron Rodgers has had a turbulent offseason. Already a vocal critic of the Packers’ front office since they drafted his presumed replacement, Jordan Love, in the first round of 2020 NFL Draft, Rodgers spent much of this offseason trying to force his way out of Green Bay via trade. In the end, in exchange for Rodgers dropping his trade demand, the Packers agreed to restructure his contract and allow him to become a free agent after the 2021 season.
As he showcased in 2020, the 37-year-old is still one of the game’s elite players. However, it seems clear that Rodgers’ time on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field is limited.
Can he provide one last hurrah for Green Bay, with whom he’s won a single Vince Lombardi Trophy (in 2011) in the sixteen seasons since he was selected in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft?
Or will the problems that have plagued the off-season continue to fester at the NFC North outfit, leading to distractions and failings on the field?
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6. Are the Saints still relevant after Brees?
Drew Brees’ retirement after the New Orleans Saints’ Divisional Round defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was not unexpected. At the same time, it has still left a huge void at quarterback for the Black and Gold.
Brees’ performances during the playoffs came under some scrutiny, with back-up quarterback Taysom Hill emerging as a more potent weapon. However, it was still Brees who was looked to as the man to deliver a second Super Bowl to the Superdome.
The Saints opted against taking an early-round quarterback in the 2021 Draft, instead sticking with former Bucs QB Jameis Winston and the wildcard option of the aforementioned Hill.
The Saints clearly have the offensive weapons to contend in wide receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara. But the suspicion is that, with Brees gone, they might have missed their Super Bowl window.
7. Can Ravens break their playoff hoodoo?
Or should that be Lamar Jackson? Either way, it is truly remarkable that the Baltimore Ravens haven’t made it back to the Super Bowl since their success over the San Francisco 49ers back in 2013.
Back-to-back division titles in 2018 and 2019 have ultimately proved fruitless, after disappointing home defeats to the Los Angeles Chargers and Tennessee Titans in the playoffs’ Divisional round.
They were similarly impressive in 2020, posting an 11-5 record, though not claiming the AFC North crown. This time, in the Wild Card round, they won their playoff opener, 20-13, over the Titans before falling, 17-3, to the Buffalo Bills in a toothless offensive showing.
Jackson and the Ravens will surely have no issue getting back to the playoffs, which will now involves 14 teams. What remains to be seen is if they can finally make it back to the AFC Championship game.
8. Bills going back-to-back in the AFC East?
In 2020, Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills finally broke the New England Patriots’ 11-year stranglehold on the AFC East.
When the Miami Dolphins claimed the East in 2008, the Pats also won the previous five division titles. Of course, that they lost Brady for the season in Week 1 is the main reason New England didn’t make six straight titles back then. This time it feels different.
With Brady no longer at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots looked extremely vulnerable in 2020. Things may not get much better with Cam Newton holding the fort at quarterback, before their first-round selection, Mac Jones from Alabama, takes over.
With the Jets rebuilding and Bill Belichick and the Pats in transition, this is a golden opportunity for fourth-year quarterback Josh Allen and head coach Sean McDermott to claim a second-straight divisional title. Of course, it won’t be a cake walk, as the Dolphins could well improve with sophomore QB Tua Tagovailoa getting a full preseason of preparation, and an outstanding new weapon in first-round draft pick (and fellow Alabama alum) wide receiver Jaylen Waddle.
9. Matthew Stafford could turn Rams into contenders
Many will say the 2021 season is a career-defining campaign for Stafford following his offseason trade to the Los Angeles Rams from the Detroit Lions.
Stafford’s numbers have always been exceptional. Yet the Lions struggled to reach the postseason over the past decade, with Stafford himself coming up short when it mattered most.
They did lose a certain Calvin Johnson (‘Megatron’, to the Lions’ faithful) a few years ago and never really managed to find a replacement playmaker, not that one simply “replaces” Calvin Johnson. However, that same excuse cannot be applied to the Rams.
With explosive options in Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Tyler Higbee, the tools are there for Stafford to reach his first postseason since 2016. Will he fulfil that potential?
10. How will 17-game season affect NFL teams?
The answer is: we don’t really know.
We could see more teams struggling with injuries and fewer teams in contention during the final weeks of the season, though the introduction of two extra playoff spots could mean postseason hopes stay alive a little longer for more teams.
Crucially, some teams will also get the benefit of an extra home game. We’ll crunch the final numbers in January 2022, but chances are this will prove significant in Week 18, with half the league getting to play an extra game at home.
One thing we do know? We all get an extra week of dramatic NFL action!